Using Stimuli During Research - hero image

Using Stimuli During Research

We use simple tools to foster creativity. Design research, typically a way to extract information, can also be a way to support creativity with our customers and users.

Design research is the foundation for design strategy, and the basics of design research are fairly simple: go to the people, instead of bringing them to you, and follow a loose script rather than a formal interview protocol.

But there is nuance and craft to design research, and a variety of types (and sub-types) of research for various contexts. Foundational research is focused on building empathy and understanding through more traditional interactions, like discussion. Evaluative research is aimed at understanding the value of something that’s been made, or a concept that’s been proposed. And generative research is about actually creating new things, knowledge, or ideas during the research session. We’re not advocates of any specific type of research, and our sessions are often a blend of these three approaches. But one thing that is common across all of our research is our inclusion of stimuli – prompts that are used to focus and guide the research.

Understanding Stimuli

Research stimuli are any tangible artifacts that are used during a research session that prompt introspection, activity, or discussion. These types of artifacts help participants communicate their thinking and feelings in non-verbal ways. Spoken language is one of the most effective communication tools we have, but many people have a difficult time being put on the spot to talk through complex ideas in a way that represents their real intent. Finding language with enough nuance and detail to describe their thinking can be difficult.

Designers feel comfortable saying things that are “half baked” and working through the ambiguity out loud, and using sketching and drawing to further explore those ideas as they form. But most people are unfamiliar with adding another layer of communication, and shy away from things that may highlight their inexperience (“I can’t draw”). We use research stimuli to give our participants support as they explore their thoughts and ideas.

In some contexts, stimuli take the form of physical items. For example, researcher Liz Sanders has worked extensively with hospitals, and uses stimuli that represent (and look like) hospital beds, cabinets, and so-on [link, and image source]:

Make Tools

She explains that these stimuli toolkits “take advantage of the visual ways we have of sensing, knowing, remembering and expressing. The tools give access and expression to the emotional side of experience and acknowledge the subjective perspective. They reveal the unique personal histories people have that contribute to the content and quality of their experiences.” [source] For her, these toolkits recast our participants from “users” or “customers” to “designers” or “creators.” It’s a democratizing of the process as much as it is a novel way to conduct research.

Our stimuli are typically much more abstract than the hospital example. We use worksheets and “pieces and parts” to guide participant exploration. Here are some of the most basic tools we use.


The most common stimuli we use is a timeline. We bring a sheet of paper that has a horizontal access indicated as time, and a smiley face at the top, and a frownie face at the bottom.


Then, we craft an exercise that extracts key moments in a journey, and have our participants literally draw them on the map. Good experiences are indicated on the top, and bad experiences are indicated on the bottom. The content of the timeline itself varies depending on the client and topic.

For example, we recently completed a project focused on helping college students transfer from school to school and graduate on time. We used a timeline to help them reflect on their academic journey and communicate the highs and lows. Students thought about the journey, identified key moments, wrote them down, and then we discussed them.

This is what a completed form looks like:

Timeline Complete


Our script looked like this:

We would like to explore the educational experiences you’ve had so far. We’ll do an exercise that identifies some of the key memories you have about when you transferred schools, and then we’ll discuss those things. In front of you is a blank timeline. It represents your entire educational path related to when you transferred schools. On the left are early memories, and on the right is today. I’m going to ask you to silently write down the five or six most memorable experience you’ve had, and then we’ll discuss them.

You’ll see on the top a smiley face, and on the bottom is a frownie face. Write good experiences on the top, and bad ones on the bottom.

Do you have any questions before we get started?

[After the Timeline has been completed]

  • Tell me more about what happened here [event by event]
    • Why was this good (or bad)?
    • What happened right after this event?
    • Who else was involved in this event?
  • When you think about this journey as a whole, how does it make you feel?
  • If you were going to redo one of these events, what would you change? Why?
  • What will you do next?

Frequent Questions and Concerns

Typical questions, and our answers, include:

  • You actually want me to write these down? We answer: “Yes, please use this pen and write down a single sentence about each item.”
  • When does this start, what goes on the left? We answer: “The left of the timeline represents the beginning of your transferring experience. It can be any time or event that you think is where the process started for you.”
  • What counts as a memory I should write down? We answer: “Think about what events were most pivotal, interesting, or important in your journey, and try to capture about five or six of those moments.”

We occasionally encounter difficulty as we work through this exercise. Most frequently, we can’t read the participant’s hand-writing. If their work is illegible, when we discuss the timeline, we’ll actually re-write what they wrote in our own handwriting, right on top of their work.

Sometimes, when the participant starts, it becomes evident that they are giving a day-by-day reenactment of their experience, rather than identifying major points of interest. When this happens, we will interrupt and ask them to think less about each and every step, and instead, focus on the main points.

Several times, we’ve seen our participants write all of the items on the horizontal axis, rather than on top (good) and bottom (bad). When this happens, we’ll wait until they finish, and as we discuss the items, ask them if they were good and bad – and have them then draw arrows to indicate the “goodness” or “badness”.


The timeline serves a variety of purposes. First, it prompts introspection, giving the participant an opportunity to reflect – often for the first time – on the events that led up to where they are now. Next, it gives us an artifact that acts as a baseline and point of reference for discussion. Artifacts ground a conversation so that the discussion can be specific, rather than general.

Most importantly, it grants the participant permission to think quietly.

In an interview, there is pressure to respond to questions quickly. The activity gives the participant a chance to stop and really consider their answers.

Mad Libs

Another common tool we use during research is a “Mad Libs” exercise. Mad Libs is a simple game that I remember fondly from my childhood. A story is provided with missing phrases. The players fill in the gaps and hilarity ensues. During research, we adapt the game style, providing participants with an incomplete story, and asking them to fill it out:

Mad Lib

For example, on a recent project, we helped one of our partners learn more about the culture of their organization in order to improve the employee experience. We used a Mad Lib that asked the participant to write a letter to their leadership. Participants filled out the Mad Lib form, and then we had a discussion about what they wrote.


Our script looked like this:

Now, let’s work through another activity. This incomplete letter represents a note that we’ll pretend to send to your manager. I would like you to take a few minutes to fill it out silently, and then let’s talk about what you wrote. We’re not going to actually send the letter, but pretend we will. Do you have any questions before we start?

[After the Mad Lib has been completed]

  • Tell me more about what you wrote here (answer by answer).
  • If you actually sent this letter…
    • Who would you send it to?
    • Why would you send it to them?
    • What do you think would happen as a result?
  • When you think about the last answer – something to change – what do you think would be the hardest part of making this change? Why?

Frequent Questions and Concerns

This exercise is so straight-forward that participants rarely have questions about the process. We do run into some issues that are similar to those with the timeline. Sometimes, we can’t read the participant’s hand-writing. If their work is illegible, when we discuss the Mad Lib, we’ll actually re-write what they wrote in our own handwriting, right on top of their work. Often, the participant uses only a few words to describe their answers. The discussion serves as a way to extract more information about the answers.


The Mad Lib serves several purposes. First, it provides a venue for sharing a private or personal moment (such as a note to leadership), without first having to discuss it aloud. Writing it down is personal, and the facilitator essentially blends away so that the participant is alone with their thoughts and the document.

As with the Timeline, it gives us an artifact that acts as a baseline and point of reference for discussion. Artifacts ground a conversation so that the discussion can be specific, rather than general.

It makes a serious topic lighter.

Many of our participants know what a Mad Lib is, and even though this is not exactly the same, the name itself helps contextualize the activity as a game.

Interface Pieces and Parts

A tool we often use when focused on digital products is a set of interface pieces and parts. We provide the participant with UI components, printed on small pieces of paper. Then, we create a series of design tasks, and ask the participant to create their own designs to solve those tasks.

UI Parts

For example, on a recent project, we helped a software partner envision a potential new product design for communities to use. Midway through our own design, we brought their customers into a workshop environment, and had them produce their own solutions to the design problem.


Our script looked like this:

Today, you are all software designers, but you won’t need to write any code. We’re going to provide you with a variety of parts of software on pieces of paper, and ask you to design some screens. You can move those pieces of paper around and create anything you want. Then, we’ll share those screens with the group and ask you to explain what you made. There’s no wrong answer here, and don’t worry about making it look great – we’ll do that part later. Instead, try to make something that really reflects how you would expect the software to work.

[After each activity has been completed]

Let’s look at what you created.

  • First, tell us about it.
  • When would the user encounter this screen?
  • [Looking at specific elements]
    • Why did you decide to design that area like this?
    • Tell me what you think would happen after the user clicked on this [interacted with/filled out/completed]
  • What is the most important part of the design you created?
  • If this design existed, how would your job change?

Frequent Questions and Concerns

The main question we hear when we run an activity like this is “What do I do?” Even after hearing directions, this activity is so foreign to participants that they sometimes need more direction. In these cases, we do a sample. We quickly create an interface for something generic, like an alarm clock, and talk out loud as we do.

Once participants begin working through this activity, they run away with it. It’s fun, engaging, and fairly easy. The only real issue we run into while running the activity is entirely logistical. Some interface elements are small, and blow around the room. We sometimes make the interface elements on thick card stock, but that makes them more “precious”, and our intent is for participants to treat them as a more transient or flexible tool. We simply put up with this challenge.


The interface pieces and parts activity serves a variety of purposes. It positions the participants as creative collaborators, and empowers them to see value in their contributions. This introduces their expertise into the process; even if they aren’t experts in interface design, they are experts in understanding (even if only tacitly) their needs.

And, it’s fun. We’ve found that when our participants are engaged, we gain richer data. Participants have longer attention spans when working with stimuli like this.

Additionally, working with a toolkit helps participants articulate latent desires.

Participants may find it difficult to communicate what they actually want verbally, but this form of activity brings clarity to those desires.

These are just some of the tools we use during contextual research, and these are fairly generic (and reusable). We often create custom tools that blend these types of stimuli together, in order to support the specific needs of a specific client project.

We find stimuli an effective way to expand the scope of our research and to simultaneously add depth to the information our participants provide us. We use them consistently as part of our design strategy process, in order to bring non-designers into the creative process, advocate on their behalf, and craft strategy that better supports their wants and needs.

It takes time to produce these artifacts. We use a template as a starting point. I’ve provided these templates here:

Jon Kolko

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